The Council of Nicea

When the first Council of Nicea met in 325, there were delegates from every part of the Roman Empire except Britain. I smiled over this recently when a cleric of my acquaintance waxed wrathful over what he saw as a slight from Rome. Although some may believe that God is an Englishman, his deputies do not always concur. Our windy, rainy island off the coast of continental Europe is, ecclesiastically speaking, rather unimportant — at least, as seen from one of the ancient patriarchates. Perhaps the rot began at Nicea, with our absence from the council chamber.

We tend to forget how much we owe to Nicea: the formulation of the first part of the Nicene creed which, with its clear proclamation of both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, effectively dimissed the Arian heresy; the separation of the calculation of the date of Easter from the Jewish calendar (the matter under discussion at our own Synod of Whitby); and the promulgation of what we would call canon law (most of its provisions now subsumed into other legislation, although we still acknowledge that bishops and priests should receive Holy Communion before deacons, while the ban on kneeling for prayer on Sundays and during Eastertide survives mainly in the posture assumed for the litany and anthem to Our Lady). Interpretation of the sixth canon, concerning the authority of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, is still hotly disputed in some quarters, so one cannot say that Nicea resolved all the questions it addressed.

We have a number of accounts of the council which make modern ecclesiastical rows look almost gentlemanly by comparison. Arius, for example, was slapped in the face by Nicholas of Myra (who was later canonized). Clearly, had there been delegates from Britain it might have been more decorous. We cannot rewrite history, but we can learn its lessons. Let’s hope that the various discussions under way in various Churches will be conducted with more kindness and more understanding of others’ points of view.

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